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Wednesday, April 6, 2022

DEAD KIDS (aka STRANGE BEHAVIOR) -- Blu-ray/DVD review by porfle

 Originally posted 2/05/14


I can't explain exactly why I like this movie so much.  But it struck me in just the right way the first time I saw it on Cinemax back in the 80s (under the title STRANGE BEHAVIOR) and I've regarded it fondly ever since.

DEAD KIDS (1981), as it's known on DVD, is a low-budget independent film that was made in New Zealand (which doubles for smalltown Illinois) at the height of the slasher-film craze, but there's more to it than just waiting for the next gory kill.  Along with a pretty sweet cast (veterans Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, Fiona Lewis, Scott Brady, Arthur Dignam, and Charles Lane, along with likable youngsters Dan Shor, Dey Young, and Marc McClure) the film takes ample time establishing a bucolic smalltown ambience and introducing us to some characters that we get to know and don't mind spending a little time with.  That way, we're actually concerned when bad things start happening to them.

Shor ("Ram" in the original TRON), whom I've always liked for some reason, is a typical teen named Pete Brady whose dad John (Murphy) is the town's "top cop."  SUPERMAN's Marc McClure plays an even quirkier nerd here as poodle-perky school chum Oliver, who tells Pete that he can earn some extra money as a guinea pig for a local research lab run by primly sexy Dr. Parkinson (Fiona Lewis, THE FURY, LISZTOMANIA). 

Pete feels like a million dollars after the lady doctor first gives him some kind of magic pill, but their second session (one of the film's most harrowing sequences) is another thing entirely--I'm talking strapped down, hypo in the eyeball, pissing blood, falling face-first into somebody's pizza territory here.

But the real horror that gives DEAD KIDS the sort of subtle creepiness that sneaks up on you is the fact that the young people of the town are suddenly starting to kill each other in gruesome ways for no apparent reason whatsoever.  The film opens with such a murder as a young man played by co-scripter Bill Condon (who would later write and direct such films as DREAMGIRLS and GODS AND MONSTERS) gets stalked and stabbed in his own shadow-strewn house while the power is off. 

Director Michael Laughlin (STRANGE INVADERS) shows us his schizo style right of the bat by skillfully establishing an effectively chilling situation and then diluting it when the actual murder is awkwardly staged.  Time and again for the rest of the film Laughlin continues to show real talent as a director and then undermines himself by allowing certain scenes to come out kind of half-baked. 

Still, the good stuff is solid, and even some of the lesser passages get by on a sort of lanky charm.  You can't go wrong by giving Murphy's police chief character a male secretary played by the delightfully cranky Charles Lane, and the way a rumpled Scott Brady (as a state cop sent to aid in the murder investigation) just wanders into the movie during a slow scene and starts regaling Murphy and Lane with stories  of his most gruesome crime scenes is some kind of wonderful.

In order to get the most out of it, you meet this kind of film halfway or not at all.  The rewards--a creepy shot here and there, some suspense, a bit of shocking gore (makeup-effects man Craig Reardon's rushed efforts pay off more often than not), a neat plot twist--keep it all delectably compelling.

There's a party scene that seems to be straight out of 80s teen-movie central (at one point a roomful of dancers actually look choreographed) and is so unabashedly cheesy that I can't help but enjoy it.  This leads to another murder sequence--featuring Elizabeth Cheshire who played the cute little girl in AIRPORT '77-- with Laughlin's patented style of mixing the good, the bad, and the lackluster to come up with something all his own. 

Louise Fletcher, after her Oscar-winning turn as the loathesome Nurse Ratched in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, gets to let her hair down here as a warm-hearted good ol' gal helping John Brady get over his widowerhood.  (The only drawback is that she isn't in the movie nearly enough.)  Murphy (MANHATTAN, MASH) is his usual easygoing self until his character is reminded of his late wife, who died mysteriously while working for the equally mysterious, also-dead Dr. LaSange (Arthur Dignam) at the research lab now run by LaSange's assistant Dr. Parkinson. 

See how it all ties together?  Strange experiments, kids murdering each other, an evil villain reaching out from beyond the grave, and the cold but somehow perversely sexy Fiona Lewis making me feel all tingly in bad ways.  Oh yeah, and in the "cannot be unseen" department, Dan Shor's butt.  What's up with that?  ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL's cute Dey Young shows up as Dan's new girlfriend to help us recover from that sight, but it's too little too late.

What really stays in the mind after watching DEAD KIDS--besides its effectively ominous score by Tangerine Dream--is the exquisitely staged sequence in which matronly housekeeper Mrs. Haskell (Beryl Te Wiata) enters a client's home one night and stumbles into a situation which, thanks to Michael Laughlin hitting all the right notes for a change, is teasingly suspenseful, effectively gruesome, and genuinely, deliciously scary in ways that wouldn't even occur to the usual FRIDAY THE 13TH clone. 

Ditto for the film's nail-biting climactic sequence, which, aside from a tank-sized plothole which I've been trying to figure out for the past thirty years, builds to just short of Cronenberg-level intensity as father and son Bradys fall victim to the heinous evil that infests their formerly horror-free existence.  There's even a twist that I'd forgotten about, so it came as a surprise to me yet again.

The Blu-ray/DVD combo from Severin Films is in 2.35 :1 widescreen with English mono sound.  No subtitles.  Extras include a dry commentary from director Laughlin, a much livelier one featuring co-writer Condon along with stars Shor and Young, an isolated Tangerine Dream musical score, U.S. and international trailers, and a newly-shot interview with makeup-effects artist Craig Reardon.  Running time is 99 minutes.

Why do I like DEAD KIDS (aka STRANGE BEHAVIOR) enough to keep getting that good old-fashioned horror movie vibe from it after all these years, when so many other fright flicks of its era don't even rate a rewatch?  I don't know.  There's just something about the ambience Laughlin manages to create that does something for me.   Strange, huh?

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